It looked like any holiday social scene - people greeting, laughing, talking, and later sharing a meal. But the crowd at Bertucci's at Cherry Hill Mall one recent evening had a slightly different tilt.
These were members of Good Company, a group of senior citizens committed to sharing one another's lives as friends and companions without the pressure of dating.
"We are definitely not a singles dating group," said Barbara Greenbaum, one of the founders of Good Company, who oversees the 100-member group without an official title.
Greenbaum knows a lot about being alone in later life. The wife of a doctor, she was stunned to find herself alone after her husband Sanford's death 16 years ago from an aneurysm. She was 48 and had lived a happy life as part of a couple in the Turnersville area.
"It was an unexpected and unwelcome status," Greenbaum said of being a widow, "and initially, I was quite lonely. But most of our couple friends did support me, and there were so many legal details to attend to that I was quite busy just handling all of that."
As reality set in that this was a new and daunting chapter of her life, Greenbaum, who had proved her mettle as a cooking-school founder, a fashion show narrator, a founder of a Turnersville synagogue and a mother of two, was determined to rally. One night, a mutual friend arranged for her to meet Barbara Epstein, another struggling new widow.
"By the time that dinner was over, the two of us had come up with the concept for a group for older singles that would focus on friendship and activity, not on dating. We figured that there had to be other singles who just wanted to meet interesting men and women and share experiences," Greenbaum said.
The first meeting in 1996 involved six people and took place in a home. No one imagined that the group would grow into the vibrant organization it is today, serving singles from South Jersey and Philadelphia who cherish one another's company.
"We are what our name suggests, men and women who truly enjoy one another as social and cultural friends," said Greenbaum, now a Voorhees resident, who is proud that the nonprofit, nonsectarian group has brought comfort and pleasure to so many people. People over 60 are welcome to apply for membership, which is balanced to keep it at least one-third male.
Good Company meets for monthly and smaller communal dinners at various homes on both sides of the river. It also sponsors trips to museums, galleries, cultural events, bowling parties, barbecues in season and trips to interesting regional sites. There's a sub-group, Funly Dining, that eats out more frequently. Separate checks are the rule.
For Ike Iaconelli of Pennsauken, it took a daughter to push him into a more active life after his wife of 40 years died nine years ago. "Once I started coming to Good Company, I realized that life could go on, and that I didn't have to die, too," he said at the Bertucci's gathering. "I've definitely gotten back into socializing, and through this group, I've come a long way."
New member Jack Shore felt lost and depressed when his wife died 16 months ago. He couldn't shake the feeling at first that there was nothing left for him.
"Men are probably not as good as women in seeking support," said the 77-year-old widower, who was married for 53 years. "I now recognize that."
While even the idea of socializing was difficult for Shore, a retired advertising copywriter, he decided to give Good Company a try three months ago.
"I was surprised at how comfortable I felt, mainly because there were friendly people and no dating pressure," said Shore, who was "mentored" into the group by another male member. All new members receive that one-on-one orientation.
Suzie Epstein, a divorced Moorestown psychologist, joined Good Company when it was just starting, several years before she met her significant other, Bill Holt, a Princeton Realtor.
"I loved being in the group and started bringing Bill along with me," she said. "Now he's as involved as I am. We go on many of the cultural trips, and thoroughly enjoy the group."
Founder Greenbaum sums up the spirit of the group as a new year begins.
"Life can have many new beginnings," she said. "There's a wonderful Weight Watchers motto that suggests, 'If It's Meant to Be, It's Up to Me.' In the end, it's up to each of us how we live our lives. And for me, having good company is part of a good life."
Learn about Good Company by e-mailing
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or by writing to Good Friends, Box 24606, Philadelphia 19111. Dues are $30 per year.